Though Boys Throw Stones at Frogs in Sport

A very long time ago Bion of Borysthenes, (325-250 B.C.) wrote,


Though boys throw stones at frogs in sport, yet the frogs do not die in sport but in earnest.


This Greek slave, later a freedman turned philosopher, shared several ideas that get interpreted lots of ways and still resonate today. The boys throwing stones quote came to mind as I read the many Facebook posted stories about the Minnesota dentist who killed Cecil, the 13-year old male lion, in Zimbabwe. It died for no reason beyond the grownup greed of a dentist wanting a trophy.



National Geographic Society estimates that 100,000 elephants were poached in the past three years for their ivory. Yet some licenses were still sold in Zimbabwe to allow shooting of these incredible animals using the claim that it was necessary management, not just the big price claimed for a license.

Trophy hunters like the dentist rationalize their big kills of large predators and vulnerable but rare hoofed animals. It’s easy to rationalize if you are rich and the government allows your bad behaviors because you’ve paid for the right to take a life. A poor person shooting any animal on a preserve for food is simply labeled a poacher.


Here’s the problem with trophy hunting rationalizations. They’re just plain wrong. Some of the most common lies told in the name of excusing a completely unnecessary and undesirable behavior:


  • I removed an over-mature male from the population (big antlers), making room for younger healthy animals to grow up. What this really means is I removed a dominant, successful breeder. It’s kind of like a farmer saying I killed my best bull for meat instead of keeping it in the breeding herd. No farmer does this but wildlife agencies allow trophy hunting of the biggest and best breeders in wildlife populations because they want the fees, which brings us to the next misconception.
  • My big fee for hunting supports the local community and gives them jobs as guides, porters, food preparers and drivers. Photography safaris do this even more effectively because they leave the animals for others to see instead of putting a head on the wall. Also the big money for licenses and safaris goes mostly to large landowners, resort owners and sometimes to corrupt government officials. There are many more effective ways to help local communities around the world. Mountain gorilla tourism in Rwanda and Uganda shows the real power of non-consumptive tourism to help local communities and protect vulnerable wildlife populations. Every license fee includes a percentage back to local communities. Mountain gorilla populations have increased over fourfold in two decades due to the protections offered by non-consumptive tourism.
  • We are keeping the herd numbers controlled. If we really wanted to keep a herd or population of animals from overeating the food supply, we would return the appropriate predators to the area to do that job. Trophy hunters do not want old, sick and injured animals which are the ones targeted by natural predators.
  • We removed a dangerous predator to protect people. The only real predator of consequence for humans are other humans. Large, dangerous predators in natural areas play a key role in removal of prey from populations based on natural selection of sick, injured and unfit to survive animals.
  • We killed this animal to protect local villages from damage to their farms. All over the world, people are finding creative ways to live next to wildlife without having someone fly in from halfway around the world to kill animals to “help.” When outsiders take it upon themselves to solve a problem, there’s a good chance the animal killed is not even the one causing the problem. And if this is a real need, shouldn’t local people be involved in the decision and asked whether that kind of help is really needed?



Photographic safaris help people make a connection with the majestic large predators of the world, while protecting them and their habitats.

Trophy hunting has been a blind spot in wildlife management for many decades. Sport hunting is a big industry with powerful lobbies. Animals suffer incredible indignities and very real suffering as injured animals, shot by ego-junkies. Cecil was injured and tracked 40 hours before being killed. Surely there’s a more humane way to decorate a living room.


Aldo Leopold is often regarded as the “Father of Wildlife Management” for writing an early textbook on the subject. Over time he has become even better known more widely for his land ethic. He wrote,


The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land… In short, a land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.


Human greed trumps and perverts our understanding of ecological principles. The power of money and large egos have twisted our ethics on every front. We allow trophy hunting despite there being no basis for it in wildlife management that makes sense.


Bion of Borysthenes also is quoted,


The miser did not possess wealth, but was possessed by it.


A dentist who will pay $50,000 to kill a large animal for its head and the joy of killing cannot make that action make sense to anyone but another greedy trophy hunter. We need a real movement to change the decision-making in wildlife management toward practices that are more humane and sustainable. It’s a good time to get started. This lion died in earnest, but perhaps he will not have died in vain.


– Tim Merriman



Mass Media Ethics in Films and Videos

Early in my career I delivered snake programs with live snakes for people to touch or see at a state park. Each year my live snake show at the Illinois State Fair would draw four or five daily audiences of hundreds. I was trying to provide an alternate narrative to the misinformation about snakes delivered through movies, TV news reports and friends’ flawed stories, exaggerated over time. One of my examples from that time period, the 1970s:


Remember Tarzan movies with Johnnie Weismueller? Tarzan is walking through the African jungle, an Austalian cockatoo sings from the treetops, an American alligator yawns in the river nearby, a Central American jaguar growls from the underbrush and a South American boa constrictor falls 5,000 miles sideways from a tree landing right on Tarzan’s chest. The 200-pound man wrestles the 15-pound snake with only his bare hands and a 10-inch knife. Most of what we hear and see about snakes is just as bizarre and just as made-up as that scenario.


Movies back then employed stock footage from diverse sources to tell their stories. Accuracy and ethics were not discussed. But decades later, it seems little has changed, or has it? We expect movies based on fiction to present unbelievable events and we overlook things that are unrealistic since it’s supposed to be entertainment, but what if credible non-fiction videographers and storytellers do that same thing?


Animal Planet, National Geographic Explorer and Discovery channels provide cable programming on diverse nature and culture topics. From Shark Week to Rattlesnake Republic to Finding Bigfoot, these programs attempt to build an audience with seemingly real content. Are their producers concerned about accuracy, conservation issues and the ethical treatment of animals?


Chris Palmer is a successful wildlife videographer who teaches about his profession at American University. In a recent TED talk he spoke candidly about the ethical choices a filmmaker makes routinely. Much of what we have seen and enjoyed in video storytelling about wildlife is a blend of real footage shot in the wilds and staged shots that help tell the story. The public is usually disappointed when they find out that seemingly realistic views into the private lives of animals are often confections, not the amazing videography they seem to be.


Palmer points out that our very best cable channels about animals now tilt heavily towards overly dramatized dangers. Rattlesnake Republic on the Animal Planet follows four groups of rattlesnake hunters to varied setting for roundups that make a spectacle of animal cruelty. On another program, “researchers” seek the mythical creature, Bigfoot. Pseudoscience gets better ratings than real science and program executives give us what we want, not what we need. Chris Palmer ends his TED talk with his thoughts on what we might do to improve the situation. I urge you to listen to his talk and consider his ideas.


Nature centers, zoos, museums, aquariums and wildlife sanctuaries seem to be the logical alternative for people to learn about the real world and counter what they think they know from sensational but inaccurate and overdramatized cable shows. But it may be a challenge to draw people away from their videos and TVs to take part in activities based in the real world. How do you compete with and/or complement the virtual programming in your area?


– Tim Merriman




The Uncertain Future of Elephants

Earth’s largest land animals, elephants, have never been more threatened. Dozens, if not hundreds, of organizations and individuals are working on various tactics in hopes of turning the current very negative trend.


Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Sheldrick Wild Animal Trust allows daily visits to the orphaned elephants, a chance to tell the story of poaching and habitat destruction.

Since 1977 the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust has been devoted to protecting elephants. Their Orphans Project is noted for rescuing, raising and rehabilitating elephants and rhinos for eventual release at Tsavo National Park. Tourists are moved by seeing orphaned baby elephants at Sheldrick Trust’s elephant orphanage in Kenya and they chip in to help by “adopting” an elephant or rhino, helping to pay the costs of raising these big babies. It’s hard to resist these youngsters and certainly, we didn’t even try to do so on our visit there, promptly adopting two elephants and one rhino for a two-year period.


Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Females have tusks so they are at risk with poachers. The little ones will only survive if their mothers do also.

Safaris take people out to see elephants in the wild, but too often people enjoy the safari experience without understanding the unseen threat of poachers that is one of the causes for so many elephant and rhino orphans. These highly engaged tourists could be donors if their guides would share the stories of how populations are declining and options for where to make contributions.


An old bull is nicknamed a "tusker." This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

An old bull is nicknamed a “tusker.” This identity reminds us that their tusks are so valuable that these mature animals are especially at risk.

Elephant orphanages and ecotours do not offer a panacea in the battle to save elephants. They are one piece of a complex puzzle that might build greater empathy among tourists for the plight faced by elephants. Better monitoring of populations is important to detect and interdict poachers. Research informs biologists how populations are changing. Enforcement officers must be on hand to catch poachers and get them prosecuted. Laws have to hold poachers and ivory buyers accountable. Sadly, the big money behind ivory poaching also contributes to corruption among government officials. Some are paid to look the other way and in many places this allows poaching to go unchecked.


Legitimate government and non-government organizational commitments to support habitat conservation, anti-poaching efforts, and education programs all require money and very often, that does not come unless there is broad understanding by people of the importance of the issues involved.


Most folks will never take a safari or see baby elephants in an orphanage. The zoo or a television program provides their one chance to learn about the plight of elephants in the wild. Can you imagine telling your grandchildren one day of the majestic herds of elephants that once roamed the forests and savannahs of Asia and Africa that have been wiped out? Although keeping such a large, social animal in a zoo is certainly controversial, we need opportunities to tell the elephants’ stories skillfully. Many zoos, even some without captive elephants, do that quite well. Some also take donations to protect habitat, hire rangers and guard remaining wild populations.


We live in a time when our knowledge of environmental threats has never been greater. And yet our political will and tools to protect elephants may not be adequate to the challenge. About 400,000 African elephants remain in nature with more than 35,000 being killed each year. About 40,000 Asian elephants live in their greatly diminished range. And the current rate of killing could reduce this noble animal to near extinction in a dozen more years at this level of poaching.


I think it has been shown over and over that we need ecosystems approaches to how we deal with the world’s environmental problems. Thoughtful policy, law enforcement, habitat protection, monitoring and interpretation each play a vital role. Some agencies and organizations choose one or two of these tools in preference to using all of them, but a balanced approach is needed overall. Strategic partnerships are vital in getting organizations working together to save the world’s elephants. Individuals can simply reject the purchase or display of anything made of ivory and help advocate for better support for elephant conservation.


World Elephant Day approaches on August 12th and it’s a chance for people from all over the world to speak up about the threat to elephants and the need for diverse approaches to protecting them. A balanced approach is needed if elephants are to be saved as keystone species in their natural ranges.


– Tim Merriman


Only elephants should wear ivory.